If I said to you that a performance comprising a string quartet plus a folk band with two sisters singing and clog dancing brought the audience to its feet with a massive cheer at the end of a ten minute song just before the interval – you might not believe me. Read on.
It’s always a bit of a tense moment sitting in an audience with family members, watching as the band come onstage to start playing music that you have loved and are hoping is going to be as good as you have made it out to be. I wasn’t going to be disappointed, and neither were my son and partner!
I first heard The Unthanks on Radio Three’s Late Junction a good few years ago – those voices – Becky and Rachel Unthank, come from a strong Northumbrian folk heritage, and their voices are at once stunning and distinctive, and perfectly matched when they harmonise.
I raced out to get an album by them. And after a good listen, I even played them to my music listening friend, John, who is usually pretty focused on blues and hard rock. Even he was entranced by the delicate beauty of their harmonies and eeriness of the Geordie dialect. The idea of seeing them not just singing, but clog dancing too was just too weird to miss.
Having got hold of the new album (Mount the Air) the day it came out and been playing it since then – I already had the melodies stuck in my head. This was really exciting – I couldn’t wait to hear them live. I had missed them in Liverpool when they came to play with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band – so didn’t want to miss them again.
Here I was then, sitting and waiting – listening to the innocence of the support act, Raevennan Husbandes, playing an acoustic guitar and singing like a cross between Janis Ian and Eva Cassidy. Then, onto the stage come The Unthanks.
Ten of them – that’s two voices (with clogs for rhythms!), piano, drums, bass (double and electric), trumpet and a string quartet. That’s a clue to where their music has travelled – it is now a mix of folk, jazz and classical. They seem to have found their own space in this blend of genres. I love the way they are mixing traditional songs (well researched) with the new, and also twisting prog rock and avant rock into folk / jazz interpretations all their own.
It was an amazing concert. Thoroughly enjoyed by the audience. Full of peak moments. Above all, I loved the way the group managed to achieve an informality on the stage in spite of the size of the venue. They chatted and bantered their way between songs and gave the impression that we were sitting in their lounge watching them do what they love best. It was impressive.
Now, a band that has released albums with cover version of songs by Robert Wyatt, Antony and the Johnsons, and King Crimson are clearly going to appeal to me. It’s almost as though they are working through my music collection. All of these tastes were reflected in the songs they chose to sing – and each song comes with the distinctive Unthanks watermark on it. Their sound is just so clearly their own – to tag them as folk is too limiting.
Late in the performance they hinted that they will be doing something more substantial in Liverpool next year. I can’t wait to find out more. In the meantime, if you get the chance to see them whilst they are on tour don’t miss it. If you don’t – try an album. You won’t be disappointed.